Thoughts from Thessaloniki 2

It now seems some time since I travelled around Greece at Easter, ending at Thessaloniki for a week. In my last blog I wrote about genocide. The other issue that struck me particularly during this trip was the way in which different museums choose to engage with their publics.

Greece has some truly wonderful museums, and many have been updated, refurbished, or entirely rebuilt in recent years. The new Acropolis Museum in Athens is an imaginative building, echoing the structure of the Acopolis opposite. Of course, many of the objects on display within the Museum have notes on them indicating that what we are seeing is a reproduction of an original that sits in another museum in London, Berlin or Paris (something that I came to be familiar with across the museums of Greece, although in most of the provincial museums the note indicated that the original was in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens).

In this blog, however, I want to focus on the two key museums in Thessaloniki, the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki and the Museum of Byzantine Culture. The Byzantine museum is a much more recent construction and presents a series of masterpieces of Byzantine art and architecture in expansive rooms arranged in a spiral around a central core. It is an incredible building that is perfectly designed for its purpose and a museum that I could spend many hours moving from one amazing object to the next.

The Archaeological Museum is older and well designed as a museum space, but the curators have clearly felt that the original presentation of objects was getting stale and have sought to find new ways to engage with the visitors. At the core of the museum was a fascinating exhibition looking at copies and reproductions of ancient artefacts, including those produced for the tourist trade. In the next layer around this, however, the curators had chosen to build a display focusing on the use of gold within the ancient world. There were clearly some very impressive objects within this series of galleries, but the emphasis was firmly on education and the format was dominated by large boards explaining elements of the exhibition, the source, working, trade, economic value and regal or ritual use of gold. It was certainly very interesting, and I did learn a great deal that I did not know already, but somehow it did not inspire me nearly as much as the Byzantine exhibitions.

This discussion hints at a perennial problem in museum studies. Is the museum there primarily to educate, to inform and to provide information for the visitor, or is it there to inspire, to present the best objects, the impressive, the unusual, the ‘wow factor’. Most Greek museums at the various ancient sites have, in my opinion, got this balance very nearly perfect. They certainly had many impressive objects to wow the public, but they provided plenty of useful information for those who wanted more.

This got me thinking, however, of how the digital fits into this wider debate. Since being involved in number of projects in Birmingham, before coming to Swansea, in which we were exploring the use of touch tables and other digital means of engaging the public, and enabling learning, within museum spaces, I have been very interested in the use of technology in museum displays. There were plenty of examples across the various museums of Greece including a temporary exhibition at one site that focused specifically on digital enhancements and interpretive methods of museum displays.

The question I was left with was how far all the educational material, that so dominated, and in my view stifled, the display on gold in the ancient world in Thessalonki, could have been provided more effectively in a digital format, and made available for solely those who wanted to engage with it. Would the visiting public have turned to their mobile phones for the information if it was available in that format? Would they have bothered to look it up later? I know there were various objects in the Byzantine museum that captured my attention so much that I went on to explore the web to track down further information or to answer specific questions that I needed to follow up. Nothing in the Archaeological Museum display, however, led me to explore further; all that I needed (and much more besides) was provided there and then.

Of course, this also raises questions about education more broadly. Should a module, or the lectures that form the core of the module, for example, in whatever discipline, provide everything that the student needs, whole and complete in itself, however boring and inefficient this might be? Or should the lectures simply offer provocative, inspiring and captivating examples that encourage the students to go off and explore for themselves wherever they can find further information (books, journal papers or the web)? I would always want to think that it is the second of these that should guide our teaching, but I know very well that this only works when the students are already inspired and enthusiastic about the subject in the first place (as I readily admit I am about Byzantine art, history and culture). Where this pre-requisite is not in place then we do, perhaps, need to learn from the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki, and other museums across Greece, and offer students that balance between inspiration and necessary knowledge.

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